Texas-born Alan Lomax began his folk song collecting career alongside his father John A. Lomax (1867-1948). In the early 1930’s, the Lomaxes developed the Library of Congress Archive of American Folksong, lugging a 500-pound recording machine through the United States. They collected hundreds of songs, including blues man Leadbelly in a Lousiana prison. In the early 1940’s, Alan Lomax recorded Woody Guthrie (Shakespeare in overalls) and Muddy Waters. During the McCarthy period, when left-wing performers were blacklisted, he left for England. He collected in Britian, Ireland, Italy and Spain, helping in turn to spur folk revivals throughout Europe.
Alan Lomax’s mission was “to put neglected cultures and silenced people into the communications chain.” He advocated “cultural equity: the right of every culture to have equal time on the air and equal time in the classroom.” He believed the centralized electronic communications system is imposing “standardized, mass-produced and cheapened cultures everywhere,” “crushing the life out of all the other human possibilities. My life has been devoted to opposing that tendency.”
On a visit to Scotland in 1951 Alan Lomax recorded over 250 songs within a few days. One of these collections was Gaelic Songs Of Scotland: Women At Work In the Western Isles. This collection documents a way of life almost entirely lost in twenty-first century Scotland. It contains a rich variety of songs performed with breathtaking beauty and tenderness by women at work at a time when work patterns in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were still traditionally gender-based and women did most of the child-caring; domestic and dairying tasks; carding, spinning and dyeing of wool; and waulking (fulling) of cloth after it had been woven. Singing made the work lighter and more meaningful and apparently induced the cows to give more plentifully of their milk.
It is some of his most earthy and genuinely folkloric material, trudging through the Hebrides and propping his microphone against a horse trough to record the people singing in their working life. On the sprawling 38-track album, the subjects are the callused hands and melodious throats of weavers, sheep shearers, and crofters going about their business with equal parts joy, humor and despair. It doesn’t get any more rustic than hearing an a cappella lament sung against the rhythmic beating of tweed against a table and the squirt of milk into a pail. You hear women tell stories drifting inadvertently into Gaelic and then checking themselves back to English for the benefit of Mr Lomax, laughing mischievously as the recordist obviously has no idea of their often ribald lyrics, Songs are sung, tales told, people and places recalled, women whoop and hoot…
It’s wonderful stuff.